World War I remembrance planned decades after segregated ceremonies
The Decatur Daily
DECATUR, Ala.—A group of historians plans a racially unified ceremony to honor 18 north Alabama soldiers who died during World War I but were memorialized in separate, segregated services almost 100 years ago.
The ceremony is at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Decatur Public Library.
The soldiers—some black, some white—all died in France but were remembered separately because of their race, according to Wylheme Ragland, a retired pastor and historian who has done most of the research about the honors they received.
The program on Veterans Day will bring together the descendants of the soldiers, all from Morgan County.
"We can't change the past, but we can unify the families going forward," said Ragland, who knew about the segregated ceremonies because the late Athylene Banks mentioned it to him more than two decades ago.
Banks was a longtime Decatur resident, former school administrator and daughter of one of Decatur's early black council members.
In 1920, President Raymond Poincare of France awarded memorial certificates to the families of the 18 soldiers. The U.S. War Department received the certificates and forwarded them to the Morgan County American Legion.
After the certificates arrived in Decatur, they were segregated by race, and "racially segregated religious services" were held at First Presbyterian Church for the white soldiers and King's Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church for the black soldiers, Ragland said.
William Fowler, a retired school teacher who resides in Danville, plans to attend Sunday's event because his great uncle, Cpl. Owen Fowler, one of the black soldiers killed in France.
"I didn't know much about my uncle until Rev. Ragland contacted me about what he was doing," Fowler said. "This is wonderful."
Owen Fowler, who is buried in Hartselle Baptist Church Cemetery, died Nov. 13, 1918. He was initially buried in France, but his brother requested that his remains be brought home. He is one of eight soldiers buried on Morgan County soil.
The exact racial breakdown of the 18 soldiers isn't clear generations later, but at least four were black. The families of the soldiers had little power to push back against separate services in 1918 "because that's the way things were," said Libby Boggess, a historian at the Morgan County Archives. Alabama was segregated by law at the time.
She said the French government also sent a tree in 1919 that was to be planted in honor of the 18 soldiers who died.
"No one seems to know where it was planted and if it's still around," Boggess said.